Celebrating The Rev Dr Florence Li Tim-Oi, Pioneering Priest
‘I can certainly see no theological argument against the ordination of women. We are all God’s children, male and female, it is good for us to serve God. I don’t think the details of the theological debate are important. If Jesus gave freedom to all mankind, why does our Church not give proper, natural freedom to females?’ Florence Li Tim-Oi, quoted by Ted Harrison in Much Beloved Daughter (1985)
Florence Li Tim-Oi (1907-1992) was the first woman to be ordained as priest in the Anglican Communion. The 80th anniversary of her ordination by Bishop Ronald Hall falls on 25 January 2024.
Li Tim-Oi’s story has been told by Ted Harrison in Much Beloved Daughter (1985) and in her own memoir, Raindrops of My Life (1996). There’s a wealth of information about her online – what follows is intended to encourage exploration of this remarkable and grace-filled woman’s life. It draws heavily on a booklet by Bishop Hall’s son, Christopher Hall, who knew Tim-Oi personally: It Takes ONE Woman, which you can dowload here: litimoi_story.
Tim-Oi was born in a fishing village in Hong Kong. Her Christian father, a doctor turned headmaster, named her ‘Tim-Oi’, meaning ‘Much Beloved’. At her baptism, she took name Florence – partly because she admired Florence Nightingale. In 1931, at the ordination of an English deaconess, she felt a call to the Chinese church and in 1934 started a four-year course at Union Theological College in Canton (now Guangzhou).
In 1941 she was made deacon by Bishop Mok Sau Tsang of Canton, Hong Kong and appointed to the Portuguese colony of Macau, which was crowded with refugees fleeing the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. As it was too dangerous for priests to travel to Macau Tim-Oi was licensed by her assistant bishop to preside at Holy Communion as a deacon, but her diocesan Bishop was uncomfortable with such a ‘lay’ celebration. And so, in January 1944, history was made when Bishop Ronald Hall met with her in Free China and ordained her as a priest: ‘God had clearly shown that He had already given her the gift of priesthood’.
In 1946, Tim-Oi was pressured by church conservatives to resign her licence as a Priest, but she retained her Holy Orders. She moved to the far south of China, near the Vietnamese border, where she ran a maternity home to protect female babies. The Communist Government closed down all churches in China from 1958-74 and Tim-Oi was designated as a counter-revolutionary, persecuted by the Red Guards. Forced to work on a chicken farm, and then in a factory, she was unable to openly practice her Christian faith or meet with those she knew were Christians, lest she got them into trouble. While she was officially recognised as a priest in the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macau in 1971, she wasn’t allowed to retire from her factory work until 1974. In 1979 she resumed her public ministry.
In 1981, she received permission to visit her family in Toronto. She donated her savings to good causes in China. Hall also notes that she gave £5,000 to the Movement for the Ordination of Women in England. Tim-Oi was appointed an honorary assistant at St John’s Chinese congregation and St Matthew’s parish in Toronto. In 1984, marking the 40th anniversary of her ordination, she was reinstated as a priest, an event celebrated not only in Canada but also at Westminster Abbey and at Sheffield. Tim-Oi was invited to Lambeth Palace to meet Archbishop Robert Runcie. Runcie, who had until then been unconvinced about women’s ordination, changed his thinking: ‘Who am I to say whom God can or cannot call?’.
As noted by the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2006, from 1984 until her death, Tim-Oi ‘exercised her priesthood with such faithfulness and quiet dignity that she won tremendous respect for herself and increasing support for other women seeking ordination. She was awarded Doctorates of Divinity by General Theological Seminary, New York, and Trinity College, Toronto.
The very quality of Ms. Li’s ministry in China and in Canada and the grace with which she exercised her priesthood helped convince many people through the communion and beyond that the Holy Spirit was certainly working in and through women priests. Her contribution to the church far exceeded the expectations of those involved in her ordination in 1944.’ (https://www.anglican.ca/faith/worship/resources/li-tim-oi/)
Tim-Oi returned briefly to China in 1987 when a film was made about her by Bob Browne, Return to Hepu: Li Tim-Oi Goes Home. This can be viewed at https://www.ltof.org.uk/litimoi-story/.
Florence Li Tim-Oi died in her sleep on 26 February 1992, reportedly after phoning several elderly people who were confined to their homes, praying with them and offering them pastoral counsel. She is buried in Toronto.
She did not seek fame. Her only concern, Hall writes, ‘was for others, not least that women should be fully valued by the Church and in society’. She is recorded as saying that Christianity was the gift of the West to the East, and her ordination was a gift from the East to the West.
Hall writes that she would be amazed by the commemoration of her life. In 2004 the Anglican Church of Canada agreed to include Florence Li Tim-Oi on the Calendar of Holy Persons on the anniversary of her death. In 2003, the Episcopal Church of USA agreed to insert the anniversary of her priesting in the Church’s Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. In 2018, she was made a permanent part of the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.
The Lectionary Calendar includes worship resources to mark her anniversary (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/lectionary/florence-li-tim-oi/?fbclid=IwAR2ECyoVstcjTg9J6nq93WoQ51HorXcO8IJUptuYxlyIysLo1982Z34wjQ8).
There are church and school windows, friezes, prayer boards and icons commemorating her and a foundation set up in her name, with the financial assistance of her sister: the Li Tim-Oi Foundation which helps women in the Two-Thirds World train for ministry and vocational work in their communities (https://www.ltof.org.uk/)
A second film made by Bob Browne is highly recommended. It includes footage of Tim-Oi and interviews with her sister Rita, The Rev’d Dr Joyce Bennett (ordained 1971) and Bishop Barbara Harris. Beyond Hepu can be viewed at https://www.ltof.org.uk/litimoi-story/
Bennett has described Tim-Oi’s life and legacy thus: ‘She was called and in a mysterious way she sees her ordination as God’s preparation for her to help her to be ready to serve God and his church during the time of trouble. Now she knows God had brought her and the church out from under the waves. This faith in God that she has is like a flame that must now be passed on to others.’
Der, E. (1998). A Bibliographical Review of Resources on the Life of Florence Tim Oi Li (1907-1992). Anglican and Episcopal History, 67(2), 227–237. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42611936
Harrison, T. (1985). Much Beloved Daughter: The Story of Florence Li Tim Oi. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. The book is based on interviews with Li Tim-Oi.
Li, F. T. O. (1996). Raindrops of my Life: Memoirs of the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi. Toronto: Anglican Book Center.
Rose, M. (1996). Freedom from Sanctified Sexism. McGregor: Allira. Rose notes that Queensland MOW pioneer, Joan Lethlean, is the niece of Bishop Ronald Hall.
Wickeri, P. L. (2018). The Ordination and Ministry of Li Tim Oi: A Historical Perspective on a Singular Event. In W. C. A. Wong & P. P. K. Chiu (Eds.), Christian Women in Chinese Society: The Anglican Story (1st ed., pp. 107–128). Hong Kong University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv80cbh8.14
A lengthy online biographical article can be found on the Women’s Ordination Worldwide website (http://womensordinationcampaign.org/blog-working-for-womens-equality-and-ordination-in-the-catholic-church/2020/1/25/rev-florence-li-tim-oi-first-woman-ordained-in-anglican-communion)
Information on the Li Tim-Oi Foundation is at https://www.ltof.org.uk/?fbclid=IwAR2_gPlD55bKD6a2KThvs71wuUgg-CSUNbAkmPzHIF_ObOvkdgNyFpbgqmM